Forage legumes are mostly used as cut fodder or grazed pasture. Fodder may be fed directly to livestock or used after preservation as fermented green matter (silage and haylage) or dried for products like hay, pellets or cube concentrates. Pastures may be grazed directly or cut and used in feed rations for livestock.
The cost of feed concentrates has increased and it takes up a good part of the dairy farmer’s earnings. Adding legumes in fodder production and preparation can help cut down feed costs and improve profits. Legumes provide fodder for livestock and improve soil fertility.
Almost every small-scale farm in Africa has Napier grass, which provides fodder to feed dairy animals. Grasses such as Napier, Boma Rhodes, Nandi Setaria alone cannot meet a dairy cow’s daily nutrient requirements. As production costs continue to increase due to the cost of feed concentrates like dairy meal, it is important that farmers add legumes in their pastures to improve the quality of feed to increase milk production.
There are many legumes that can be grown together with grasses to provide the much needed proteins and minerals for improved milk production and quality. These include lucerne, desmodium, sweet potato vines and even root crops such as beetroot, radish and turnips. Below we provide farmers with guidelines on how to grow some of the legumes to help improve fodder quality:
Common Lucerne (Medicago sativa)
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), also called lucerne, is a perennial flowering plant in the legume family Fabaceae. It is cultivated as an important forage crop in many countries around the world.
Lucerne is a high yielding perennial forage legume that grows upright to about 1 meter. It is ideal for conservation as hay or silage. Lucerne can remain productive for 4 to 6 years. Lucerne is best grown as a pure stand. It is drought-resistant and is a deep-rooted legume.
Climatic requirements: Lucerne requires a well-distributed rainfall of about 860mm and above. It requires well-drained soils with a pH of 6 – 6.5.
Planting: Seeds can be planted at a depth of not more than 10cm or broadcast. The seedbed should be well-prepared and firm for good germination. The seed rate can be maintained at 6kg per acre with a spacing of 20cm by 25cm.
Maturity: Lucerne matures at between 4 to 5 months depending on the weather.
Yield: Lucerne can produce between 6 and 8 tons of dry matter per acre every year depending on the weather. Cutting can be done at intervals of 4-8 weeks.
Feed value: Crude Protein 19-22%, Dry matter 21%, Crude Fibre 21%.
Purple vetch (Vicia sativa)
The common vetch (vicia sativa) is a native species of purple wildflower that flourishes in Britain and Europe. Also known as the ‘garden vetch‘, it is a member of the pea family that grows up to 70 cm and flowers throughout June to August
Purple vetch is a fast growing legume with a high nutritive value. It can be grown with Napier grass, oats, barley, other grasses or on its own.
Planting: Purple vetch does well in well-drained soils that are not acidic. Planting should be done in well-prepared seedbed for good seed germination. Broad cast or drill the seed. A spacing of 45 cm by 30cm is recommended. About 5kg of seed per acre is recommended when planting a pure stand or 3kg per acre when intercropped with grasses and fodders such as Napier grass and oats.
Maturity: Purple vetch matures in 4 months (120 days) and can be used for hay production. It produces 1.5 to 2.5tons of hay per acre when mixed with other grasses.
Feed value: Purple vetch has a Crude Protein (CP) content of 17- 22 per cent, 89% Dry matter (DM) and 30 % Crude Fibre (CF)
Desmodium (green and silver leaf)
Silverleaf desmodium (Desmodium uncinatum (Jacq.) DC.) is a trailing perennial legume that may grow up to several meters long over surrounding vegetation. … Desmodium uncinatum is mainly used as fodder. It can be used for pasture, deferred feed, cut-and-carry, and hay
Desmodium is a climbing perennial legume that has deep roots and long stems that grow freely and roots at the nodes. It can grow in areas of low temperatures and can be mixed with Napier and Kikuyu grasses. The silver leaf can withstand frost better than the green leaf.
Climatic requirements: Desmodium requires well-distributed rainfall of 850mm and above. It prefers light soils to clay loam soils with a pH of more than 5.
Planting: The seedbed should be well prepared for good germination. Seeds can be broadcasted or planted in holes that are not more than 1cm deep and well covered. Desmodium vine cuttings or root splits are the easiest to grow. About 4000 pieces of cuttings or vines can be planted in one acre.
Spacing: A spacing of 1ft by 1ft for cuttings is recommended.
Yield: One acre of desmodium can produce between 5 to 8 tons of dry matter per year.
Feed value: Crude Protein 15-20 %, Dry Matter 20-26%, Crude Fibre 25-30%.